There is no one of the symbols of Speculative Freemasonry more important in its teachings, or more interesting in its history, than the lambskin, or white leathern apron. Commencing its lessons at an early period in the Freemason's progress, it is impressed upon his memory as the first gift which he receives, the first symbol which is explained to him, and the first tangible evidence which he possesses of his admission into the Fraternity.
Whatever may be his future advancement in the "royal art," into whatsoever deeper arcana his devotion to the mystic Institution or his thirst for knowledge may subsequently lead him, with the lambskin apron-his first investiture---he never parts. Changing, perhaps, its form and its decorations, and conveying, at each step, some new but still beautiful allusion, its substance is still there, and it continues to claim the honored title by which it was first made known to him, on the night of his initiation, as the badge of a Mason.
If in less important portions of our ritual there are abundant allusions to the manners and customs of the ancient world, it is not to be supposed that the Masonic Rite of investiture-the ceremony of clothing the newly initiated candidate with this distinctive badge of his profession-is Without its archetype in the times and practises long passed away. It would, indeed, be strange, while all else in Freemasonry is covered with the veil of antiquity, that the apron alone, its most significant symbol, should be indebted far its existence to the invention of a modern mind.
On the contrary, we shall find the most satisfactory evidence that the use of the apron, or some equivalent mode of investiture, as a mystic symbol, was common to all the nations of the earth from the earliest periods.
Among the Israelites the girdle formed a part of the investiture of the priesthood. In the mysteries of Mithras, in Persia, the candidate was invested with a white apon. In the initiations practised in Hindostan, the ceremony of investiture was preserved, but a sash, called the sacred zennar, was substituted for the apron.
The Jewish sect of the Essenes clothed their novices with a white robe. The celebrated traveler Kaempfer informs us that the Japanese, who practise certain rites of initiation, invest their candidates with a white apron, bound round the loins with a zone or girdle. In the Scandinavian Rites, the military genius of the people caused them to substitute a white shield, but its presentation was accompanied by an emblematic instruction not unlike that which is connected with the Freemason's apron.
''The apron,'' says Doctor Oliver (Signs anc Symbols of Freemasonry, lecture x, page 196), "appears to have been, in ancient times, an honorary badge of distinction. In the Jewish economy, none but the superior orders of the priesthood were permitted to adorn themselves with ornamented girdles, which were made of blue, purple, and crimson, decorated with gold upon a ground of fine white linen; while the inferior priests wore only plain white. The Indian, the Persian, the Jewish, the Ethiopian, and the Egyptian aprons, though equally superb, all bore a character distinct from each other. Some were plain white, others striped with blue, purple, and crimson; some were of wrought gold, others adorned and decorated with superb tassels and fringes.
"In a word, though the principal honor of the apron may consist in its reference to innocence of conduct, and purity of heart, yet it certainly appears, through all ages, to have been a most exalted badge of distinction. In primitive times it was rather an ecclesiastical than a civil decoration, although in some cases the apron was elevated to great superiority as a national trophy. The. Royal Standard of Persia was originally an apron in form and dimensions. At this day it is connected with ecclesiastical honors; for the chief dignitaries of the Christian church, whereever a legitimate establishment, with the necessary degrees of rank and subordination is formed, are invested with aprons as a peculiar badge of distinction; which is a collateral proof of the fact that Freemasonry was originally incorporated with the various systems of divine worship used by every people in the ancient world. Freemasonry retains the symbol or shadow; at cannot have renounced the reality or substance."
A curious commentary by Thomas Carlyle upon the apron is worth consideration and is found in his Sartor Resartus (chapter vi), and is as follows : "One of the most unsatisfactory sections in the whole volume is that upon aprons. What though stout old Gao, the Persian blacksmith, 'whose apron now indeed hidden under jewels, because raised in revolt which proved successful, is still the royal standard of that country'; what though John Knox's daughter, 'who threatened Sovereign Majesty that she would catch her husband's head in her apron, rather than he should iie and be a bishop'; what though the Landgravine Elizabeth, with many other apron worthies-figure here? An idle, wire-drawing spirit, sometimes even a tone of levity, approaching to conventional satire, is too clearly discemible. What, for example, are we to make of such sentences as the following:
"'Aprons are defenses, against injury to cleanliness, to safety, to modesty, sometimes to roguery.
From the thin slip of notched silk (as it were, the emblem and beatified ghost of an apron), which some highest-bred housewife, sitting at Nurnberg Workboxes and Toy-boxes, has gracefuily fastened on, to the thick-tanned hide, girt around him with thongs, wherein the Builder builds, and at evening sticks his trowel, or in these jingling sheet-iron aprons, wherein your otherwise half-naked Vulcans hammer and swelter in their smelt furnace---is there not range enough in the fashion and uses of this vestment'?
How much has been concealed, how much has been defended in Aprons! Nay, rightfully considered, what is your whole Military and Police establishment, charged at uncalculated millions, but a huge scarlet-colored, iron-fastened Apron, wherein Society works (uneasily enough), guarding itself from some soil and stithy-sparks in this Devil's smithy of a world? But of all aprons the most puzzling to me hitherto has been the Episcopal or Cassock. Wherein consists the usefulness of this Apron?
The Overseer uf Souls, I notice, has tucked in the corner of it, as if his day's work were done. What does he shadow forth thereby?"
Brother John Barr read a paper on The Whys and Wherefores of the Masonic Apron before the Masters and Past Masters Lodge No. 130, Christ Church, New Zealand, from which (Transactions, May, 1925) we take the following information:
" What we know as Freemasonry today can fairly easily be traced, with but slight breaks, to what is known in history as the Comacini Gild, or what Leader Scott, in her very interesting work calls The Cathedral Builders. Their officers were similar to our own, that is, with respect to the most important; they had the signs, symbols and secrets used in the main by us today; and, what affects this article, they wore white aprons, not only while actively engaged as operatives, but when meeting together for instruction and improvement in their Lodges. When members of the Fraternity first landed in Britain is not known. We have evidence that 'Benedict, the Abbot of Wearmouth, 676 A.D., crossed the ocean to Gaul and brought back stone-masons to make a church after the Roman fashion.' It is also known that stone-masons, that is members of the Comacini Gild, were in Britain before that date, and it is assumed that Benedict had to go for more, as all in Britain were fully employed.
One could dwell on that part of our history at considerable length; but my object is not that of tracing the history of the old operative mason, whether Comacini or Gild Mason. I have merely touched on it for the reason that I believe it to be the stream or spriug that is the source of the goodly river whose waters it should be our endeavor to keep dear and pure. It is to the ancient Operative Masons we go for the origin of the present apron.
" Our apron is derived from that of the Mason who was a master of his Craft, who was free-born and at liberty to go where he chose in the days when it was the rule that the toiler was either a bondsman or a gildsman, and, in each case, as a rule, confined to one locality.
He was one who had a true love for his art, who designed the structure and built it, and whose anxiety to build fair work and square work was greater than his anxiety to build the greatest number of feet per day. He was skilled in the speculative, or religious and educative side of the craft as well as the operative, and, in the absence of what we know as the three R's, was yet highly educated, was able to find sermons in stone, and books in the running brooks.
He was one to whom the very ground plan of his building was according to the symbolism of his belief, and he was able to see, in the principal tools of his calling, lessons that enabled him to guide his footsteps in the paths of rectitude and science. If from his working tools he learned lessons that taught him to walk upright in the sight of God and man, why not from the apron that was always with him during his working hours, no matter how he changed tool for tooll' It was part of him, one may say, while he converted the rough stone into a thing of beauty, fit for its place in the structure designed by the Master, or fitted it to its place in the building.
According to Leader Scott, there is 'In the Church of Saint Clemente, Rome, an ancient fresco of the eighth century.
Here we see a veritable Roman Magister, Master Mason, directing his men. He stands in Magisterial Toga, and surely one may descry a Masonic Apron beneath it, in the moving of a marble column.' The apron referred to by Leader Scott, seems, judging by the photograph, to have a certain amount of ornamentation, but the ordinary aprons of the brethren while working were akin to that worn by Masons to this day, that is operative Masons. As I know from tools found during the demolishing of old buildings, the tools were the same as the principal ones used today by the operative.
From my knowledge of the Operative side of Masonry, I feel sure the apron was substantially the same also. Many Masons wear today at the banker, aprons not only similar in form to those worn by our ancient brethren, but symbolically the same as those worn by brethren around me.
Let us examine an Operative Mason's Apron. The body shows four right angles, thus forming a square, symbolical of matter. The bib, as it is called in Operative Masonry, runs to the form of an equilateral triangle, symbolising spirit. When used to moralize upon, the flap is dropped, thereby representing the descent of spirit into matter-the soul to the body.
In Operative Masonry the apex of the triangle was laced or buttoned to the vest, according to the period ; in due course this was altered,.and the apex of the triangle was cut away, while the strings, which were long enough to go around the body and finish at the front, were tied there. So that it is just possible, as one writer surmises, that the strings hanging down with frayed edges, may have their representation in the tassels of our Master Masons' Aprons,
"While we have no proof, so far as I know, that is written proof, that our ancient operative brethren lid moralize on the Apron after the manner of the working tool, there is nothing to show that he did not. To me the weight of evidence is in favor of an educational value being attached to the Apron, or, to use our usual term, a symbolical value.
The more we study and the more we read, the more we become impressed with the idea that symbolism was the breath of life to the ancient Mason; he was cradled in it, brought up in it; he was hardly able to build a fortification without cutting symbols somewhere on it. He never erected a temple or church but what he make of it a book, so clear and plentiful were his symbols. In addition to the evidence one may glean from the writings of various investigators, one can see the tatters of what was once a solemn service in a custom in use amongst Operative Masons a generation back.
The custom was that of 'The washing of the apron.' This custom is referred to by Hugh Miller in his Schools anc
Schoolmasters. In the days referred to by Miller, the Apprentice was seldom allowed to try his hand on a stone, during his first year, as during that time he helped, if at the building, in carrying mortar and stone, and setting out the tools as they came from the blacksmith.
If in the quarry, he might in addition to doing odd jobs, be allowed to block out rubble or a piece of rough ashlar. If he shaped well and was to be allowed to proceed, the day came when he was told he could bring out his Apron. This was a big day for him, as now he was really to begin his life's work, and you may be sure it was a white apron, for it was an unwritten law, even in my day, that you started your week's work with your apron as white as it was possible to make it. The real ceremony had of course disappeared, and all that took its place were the tatters I referred to, which consisted principally of the providing of a reasonable amount of liquid refreshment with which the Masons cleared their throats of the stone dust. If a serious minded journeyman was present, certain advice was given the young Mason about the importance of the Craft, and the necessity for good workmanship and his future behavior. Unfortunately, there was a time when the washing of the apron was rather overdone, even in Speculative Masonry.
With regard to the above custom, I having referred to it in a paper read before the members of Lodge Sumner, No. 242, the worthy and esteemed Chaplain of the Lodge Brother Rev. W McAra, informed me that as a young man, close on sixty years ago, he attended with the grownup members of his family, who were builders in Scotland, the washing of the Apprentices' Aprons; and according to the Rev. Brother, there was 'a very nice little ceremony, although he could not mind the particulars,' and he added, 'Although I was a total abstainer in those days, they were not all that, for I can mind that the apron was well washed.'
" I am further of opinion that, had there not been great importance attached to the apron, it would have been set aside, at least among English Masons, shortly after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, as a certain section who got into the order at that time took strong exception to the apron on the plea that 'It made them look like mechanics.' lt must be remembered it was full length at that time, and remainad so for considemble period after the formation of the first Grand Lodge.
"The material also differed in early days, both in the purely operative and in the early speculative. It was not that it differed according to the country, as both linen and cotton and skin were used in different parts of the one country.
One who has studied the operative side and who, as I am, is himself an Operative Mason, can fully understand the reason for the different materials being used, although they have caused some little confusion amongst the purely speculative investigators. I feel convinced that, in purely operative times, among the Cathedral Builders and those who carried on the Craft working after them, both materials were used, as both materials were used by Masons outside the Craft Lodges at a later stage.
The cloth apron was used largely by the Mason who never left the banker, that is, by him who kept to the work of hewing or carving. I can hardly fancy a hewer polishing a column, a panel, or any piece of work and drying his hands on a leather apron.
They would be full of cracks the second day in cold weather, and in the early days there was a considemble amount of polished work. Take, for instance, the churches built by Wilfrid Bishop of York.
The one built at Hexham in A.D. 674--680 had 'Round headed arches within the church supported by lofty columns of polished stone. The walls were covered with square stones of divers colors, and polished.'
''At ordinary unpolished work, all that was required was protection from dust. On the other hand, the skin apron was largely used by him who had to fix or build the stone. In those early days the builder had to do more heavy lifting than in later years, when derricks and cranes came into more common use.
What happened was just what may be experienced on a country job at a present day. If your wall were, say, three feet high, and a heavy bondstone is to be lifted, you may have to lift it and steady it on your knee and then place it on the wall, or the wall may be of such a height as necessitates your lifting the stone first on the knee, then on the breast, and from there to the wall. Cloth being a poor protection where such work had to be done frequently, skin was used.
" We must remember also that so far as the Cathedral Builders were concerned in Britain, as elsewhere, all building tradesmen were within the guild, carpenters and tylers; while the mason could never do without his blacksmith, and the aprons were doubtless of material suitable to their departments. Skin aprons were worn by operative masons well into the 19th century. R. W. Portgate, who refers to the matter in his Builder's History, page 19, writes: 'In 1824 nearly all the Glasgow Master Masons employed between 70 and 170 Journeymen Masons each. One of them, noted as very droulhy, is marked as being the last to wear a leather apron.'
"That is the last of the masters who had now become what we know as 'the employer,'but, from reminiscences of old Masons I have listened to, it was used by setters and builders throughout Scotland up to a much later period.
" At the date of the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, the apron was white-no ornaments at first, and full size, similar in every respect to that of the Operative. In the first public account of a Masonic funeral, which appears in Read's Weekly Journal for January 12th, 1723, it is set forth that, 'Both the pallbearers and others were in their white aprons;'and in Hogarth's picture of Night, the Tyler is shown conducting the newly installed Master to his home, both wearing the long Apron of the Operative and with what appears to be the flap bundled or rolled mughly amund the top, with strings coming to the front and keeping the whole in place.
"The first attempt to create uniformity in the apron appears to have been in 1731, when a motion covering the whole question was submitted to the Grand Lodge of England by Dr. Desagulier. The motion was submitted on March 17, and was carried unanimously. As that, however, only referred to one section of the Freemasons, even in England, it lid not appear to effect much alteration. At that time many of the aprons varied in form, and some were very costly and elaborately decomted, according to the fancy of the owners. But all this was altered at the Union of Grand Lodges in 1813, and as Brother F. J. W. Crowe points out, 'The dothing to be worn under the United Grand Lodge of England was clearly laid down according to present usage.'"
In the Masonic apron two things are essential to the due preservation of its symbolic character-its color and its material.
1. As to its color. The color of a Freemason's apron should be pure unspotted white. This color has, in all ages and countries, been esteemed an emblem of innocence and purity. It was with this reference that a portion of the vestments of the Jewish priesthood was directed to be white. In the Ancient Mysteries the candidate was always dothed in white. "The priests of the Romans,''says Festus, ''were accustomed to wear white garments when they sacrificed.'' In the Scandinavian Rites it has been seen that the shield presented to the candidate was white. The Druids changed the color of the garment presented to their initiates with each degree; white, however, was the color appropriated to the last, or degree of perfection. And it was, according to their ritual, intended to teach the aspirant that none were admitted to that honor but such as were cleansed from all impurities both of body and mind.
In the early ages of the Christian church a white garment was always placed upon the catechumen who had been newly baptized, to denote that he had been cleansed from his former sins, and was thence-forth to lead a life of purity. Hence it was presented to him with this solemn charge: "Receive the white and undefiled garment, and produce it unspotted before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may obtain eternal life."
From all these instances we learn that white apparel was anciently used as an emblem of purity, and for this reason the color has been preserved in the apron of the Freemason.
2. as to its material. A Freemason's apron must be made of lambskin. No other substance, such as linen, silk, or satin, could be subsfituted without entirely destroying the emblematic character of the apron, for the material of the Freemason's apron constitutes one of the most important symbols of his profession. The lamb has always been considered as an appropriabe emblem of innocence. Hence we are taught, in the ritual of the First Degree, that, "by the lambskin, the Mason is reminded of that purity of life and rectitude of conduct which is so essentially necessary to his gaining admission into the Celestial Lodge above, where the Supreme Architect of the Universe forever presides.''
The true apron of a Freemason must, then, be of unspotted lambskin, from fourteen to sixteen inches wide, from twelve to fourteen deep, with a fall about three or four inches deep, square at the bottom, and without device or ornament of any kind. The usage of the Craft in the United States of America has, for a few years past, allowed a narrow edging of blue ribbon in the symbolic degrees, to denote the universal friendship which constitutes the bond of the society, and of which virtue blue is the Masonic emblem. But this undoubtedly is an innovation, in the opinion of Doctor Mackey, for the ancient apron was without any edging or omament.
The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts has adopted a law that "The Apron of a Master Mason shall be a plain white lambskin, fourteen inches wide by twelve inches deep.
The Apron may be adorned with skyblue lining and edging, and three rosettes of the same color. No other color shall be allowed, and no other omament shall be worn except by officers and past officers."
In the Royal Arch Degree the lambskin, of course, continues to be used, but, according to the same modern custom, there is an edging of red, to denote the zeal and fervency which should distinguish the possessors of that degree.
All extraneous ornaments and devices are in bad taste, and detract from the symbolic character of the investiture. But the silk or satin aprons, bespangled and painted and embroidered, which have been gradually creeping into our Lodges, have no sort of connection with Ancient Craft Freemasonry. They are an innovation of our French Brethren, who are never pleased with simplicity, and have, by their love of display in their various newly invented ceremonies, effaced many of the most beautiful and impressive symbols of our Institution. A Freemason who understands and appreciates the true symbolic meaning of his apron, would no more tolerate a painted or embroidered satin one than an artist would a gilded statue. By him, the lambskin, and the lambskin alone, would be considered as the badge "more ancient than the Golden Fleece, or Roman Eagle, and more honorable than the Star and Garter. "
The Grand Lodge of England is precise in its regulations for the decorations of the apron which are thus laid down in its Constitlttion:
"Entered Apprentices.-A plain white lambskin, from fourteen to sixteen inches wide, twelve to fourteen inches deep, square at bottom, and without omament ;white strings.
"Fellow Craft.-A plain white lambskin, similar to that of the Entered Apprentices, with the addition only of two sky-blue rosettes at the bottom.
"Master Masons.-The same, with sky-blue lining and edging, not more than two inches deep, and an additional rosette on the fall or flap, and silver tassels
No other colour or ornament shall be allowed except to officers and past officers of Lodges who may have the emblems of their offices in silver or white in the centre of the apron ; and except as to the members of the Prince of Wales Lodge, No. 259, who are allowed to wear the internal half of the edging of garter-blue three-fourths of an inch wide.
"Grand Stewards, present and past-Aprons of the same dimensions lined with crimson, edging of the same colour three and a half inches, and silver tassels.
Provincial and District Grand Stewards, present and past, the same, except that the edging is only two inches wide. The collars of the Grand Steward's Lodge to be crimson ribbon, four inches broad.
"Grand Officers of the United Grand Lodge, present and past.-Aprons of the same dimensions, lined with garter-blue, edging three and a half inches, ornamented with gold, and blue strings; and they may have the emblems of their offices, in gold or blue, in the centre.
"Provincial Grand Officers, present and past.- Aprons of the same dimensions, lined with garter-blue, and ornamented with gold and with blue strings :
they must have the emblems of their offices in gold or blue in the centre within a double circle, in the margin of which must be inserted the name of the Province.
The garter-blue edging to the aprons must not exceed two inches in width.
"The apron of the Deputy Grand Master to have the emblem of his office in gold embroidery in the centre, and the pomegranate and lotus alternately embroidered in gold on the edging.
"The apron of the Grand Master is ornamented with the blazing sun embroidered in gold in the centre; on the edging the pomegranate and lotus with the seveneared wheat at each comer, and also on the fall; all in gold embroidery; the fringe of gold bullion.v
"The apron of the Pro Grand Master the same.
''The Masters and Past Masters of Lodges to wear, in the place of the three rosettes on the Master Mason's apron, perpendicular lines upon horizontal lines, thereby forming three several sets of two right angles ; the length of the horizontal lines to be two inches and a half each, and of the perpendicular lines one inch; these emblems to be of silver or of ribbon, half an inch broad, and of the same colour as the lining and edging of the apron. If Grand Officers, similar emblems of garter-blue or gold."
In the United States, although there is evidence in some old aprons, still existing, that rosettes were formerly worn, there are now no distinctive decorations for the aprons of the different symbolic degrees.
The only mark of distinction is in the mode of wearing ; and this difiers in the different jurisdictions, some wearing the Master's apron turned up at the corner, and others the Fellow Craft's. The authority of Cross, in his plate of the Royal Master's Degree in the older editions of his Hieroglyphic Chart, conclusively shows that he taught the former method.
As we advance to the higher degrees, we find the apron varying in its decorations and in the color of in border, which are, however, always symbolical of some idea taught in the degree.